You do touch on this in the book, but could you briefly explain what motivated you to not just seek out the show, but to research and write about it?
My interest in pursuing a book project on the Mr. Novak series began with a viewing of a couple of episodes some three years ago. I was so impressed with the excellence of the scripting, acting, directing and production that I wished to purchase a book to find out more about this amazing program that had somehow slipped through the cracks and been largely forgotten. As I viewed additional episodes, I was pleased to see the high level of creativity and presentation maintained which motivated me to expend maximum effort to create a book as good as the series. Another factor was the enthusiasm and generosity of virtually everyone that I was able to contact who were either a part of the program or were fans. The result of my efforts has been a 100% positive reaction to the book which is very gratifying.
RICK: It seems to me that today, the combination of critical acclaim and (I assume from the significant anecdotal evidence in your book) the desirable young demographics of Mr. Novak would give it a better chance to stick around for more than a few years. You point to several different factors to its early demise. Do you think one single decision/factor could have made the show a bigger success, and if so, what?
CHUCK: The one single factor that would have enabled the Mr. Novak series to continue for several more years than it did would have been a different day’s time slot. In the days before vcrs, people were unable to tape a show for later viewing and many homes had a single television. There have been several cases in the history of TV where a superior show was broadcast opposite an extremely popular series that achieved higher ratings. The result was eventual cancellation despite , in many cases, critical acclaim. The Tuesday 7:30 p.m. time slot for Mr. Novak was ideal but unfortunately it was broadcast opposite the very popular Combat, which consistently won the Nielsen ratings. If Mr. Novak had aired against programming that wasn’t quite as strong it would have undoubtedly won its time slot and could have continued. It was a case of a cerebral dramatic show versus an action series. The quality of Mr. Novak’s presentation does hold up remarkably well for the two seasons that it did air.
RICK: One of the fascinating threads you weave into the account of the series' history is the love/hate attitude of the fan magazines toward star James Franciscus. You provide plenty of information contradicting the chatter during the show's run about friction between stars James Franciscus and Dean Jagger, and you indicate that much of it was probably fabricated. How much credence do you give to those rumors? It seems like there was a lot of smoke there.
CHUCK: James Franciscus did not like the TV and movie fan magazines that published salacious and gossip styled stories about him and his family. He was quite vocal about his distaste for this type of fabricated publicity. His lack of cooperation with these publications twice won him a Sour Apple Award and the writers and editors of the fan magazines were out to discredit him. They not only fabricated a feud between the actor and Dean Jagger but also published several stories about a feud with Dick Chamberlain. In the case of the stars of Mr. Novak, there was no feud. They were working professionals who were cordial with each other and had a mutual respect. Mr. Novak was a dialogue based show and both actors prided themselves on being letter perfect in their scenes. They wouldn’t socialize together after scenes were shot because they were running lines in their respective dressing rooms. Franciscus and Chamberlian also respected each other but moved in different social circles since Jim was married and Dick was a bachelor. While they both filmed their respective series at the MGM studio, the days were long and arduous and they might only briefly exchange pleasantries at lunch in the commissary.
CHUCK: I believe there were two main reasons the show was doomed to a brief run. The first was the loss of series’ leads Jeanne Bal and Dean Jagger. An audience identifies with the stars of any program and when there is a departure, it can weaken the viewer’s interest. If they had both stayed, it might have been a different situation of survival. The other reason occurred when series’ creator and executive producer E. Jack Neuman stepped down from a hand’s on approach in the second season. He understood his own concepts of the show and when these were followed, the program was critically acclaimed. When Leonard Freeman became the producer of the second season, he had a different idea of what the series should be. I’m sure he was motivated by the suits since there was a justifiable concern about the lesser ratings situation. The unfortunate result was that there was less emphasis on school life and the involvement of the other teachers. With that said, there are many great episodes in the second season. When Burgess Meredith, replaced Dean Jagger in the middle of the second season, it took some episodes for him to get a grip on his character as the new principal. He was really becoming a major part of the show when it ended. Had there been a third season, I think he would have had as good an impact on the audience as Dean Jagger did.